PC Webb - a man who made a difference

Swindon Advertiser: PC Richard Webb, a respected and popular local bobby. This photograph was used on a leaflet circulated to publicise his scanner appeal in May 1986 PC Richard Webb, a respected and popular local bobby. This photograph was used on a leaflet circulated to publicise his scanner appeal in May 1986

PROPPED up in bed at Princess Margaret Hospital, old school bobby Richard Webb is in all likelihood wondering what has happened to his life after it has been turned upside down by a particularly savage blow.

Three weeks earlier the popular, affable “firm but fair” community policeman is pounding his usual beat in Old Town chatting to local people and responding to incidents of crime.

But now he is paralysed down his left side after surgeons remove 80 per cent of a tumour from his brain. Richard is 38 years-old. He is a happily married man with two teenage sons.

He does not know whether he will live or die. In his own words he is “holding onto precious life with everything I have got.”

What he is not doing is feeling sorry for himself as perhaps most of us might, given the circumstances. He wants something positive to emerge from the tragedy that has cruelly befallen himself and his family.

Today, there are people going about their business in Swindon who, in all likelihood, would not be alive but for what Richard Webb decided to do from his Uffington Ward bed; he pledged to bring a body scanner to Swindon.

Commonplace now but not in the mid-Eighties, a scanner is a machine that provides early and accurate diagnosis in cases of cancer, head injury and child illness.

Back then, Oxford, Gloucester and Southampton all had one. Swindon did not. Swindon people underwent more conventional X-ray tests that were nowhere near as effective as scanners.

When local medics suspected cancer they sent patients to the above hospitals as the slots became available.

In Swindon, it was not a case of being whisked down the road for a quick scan if a cancer was suspected or a head injury sustained.

With one in our own backyard Swindon people would receive quicker treatment. An early diagnosis was and is the difference between life and death. Time, as they say is of the essence.

Had Swindon had a scanner, then Richard’s cancer may well have been detected earlier and quicker surgery might have prevented his predicament.

He knew that he could not benefit from such a machine anymore. It was too late. But others could – and, as it turns out, they did. Richard said: “I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I’ve been through.”

Over the following 18 months the PC Richard Webb Thank You Body Scanner Appeal raised more than £200,000.

Added to cash from the hospital’s official appeal – which Richard also went onto spearhead – it was enough to buy a £1 million life-saving chunk of ultra-modern equipment for the people of Swindon.

With the cash in the bag the Computerised Tomography (CT) Scanner was ordered from the General Electric Company of America.

In March 1988 Richard, by then severely ill, proudly buttoned up his police uniform for the last time to unveil the machine at PMH, the hospital that 13 years later was replaced by the Great Western Hospital.

Next Tuesday – Christmas Eve – marks the 25th anniversary of Richard Webb’s death. He never fulfilled his heartfelt ambition of returning to his Old Town beat. But he achieved something of far greater significance.

A bobby for 14 years, Richard lived in Eldene with wife Lesley and sons Paul, 15, and Peter, 13.

He was an old-fashioned type of policeman who knew his patch and the people who lived there.

You get the feeling that he wasn’t the sort of copper who would feel comfortable or fulfilled parked in a lay-by with a speed camera.

I first became aware of Richard Webb on the afternoon of Monday, May 19, 1986 when a feisty, persuasive, no-nonsense Scots lady called Betty Kerr, a friend of Richard’s, came into the Adver offices.

She told me his story, which left me both stunned and humbled.

It was a case of ‘hold the front page’ which the Adver did. The following day’s splash was “Hospital Plea of a Brave PC.”

Richard had periodically suffered headaches and mild epilepsy during recent years but the proverbial bombshell dropped when he was diagnosed, just a few weeks earlier, with a brain tumour.

Betty, an estate agent, didn’t hang about. She swiftly kick-started the campaign with a sale of hundreds of goods from her home in Springfield Road.

Bracing himself for weeks of radiotherapy, wheelchair-bound Richard attended. Nearly £4,000 was raised.

Richard soon became the face of the hospital scanner campaign – personifying the town’s urgent need for this shiny piece of hi-tech machinery – as well as heading up his own fund raising efforts.

Money rolled in. A 91 year-old woman who had an unexpected electricity bill rebate rounded it up to £100 and sent it in. A solicitor bowled in with £800 – a donation from a client who wished to remain anonymous Richard had a chart installed next to his hospital bed so that he could monitor the cash from both campaigns as it steadily mounted up before they eventually merged as one to hit the £1 million jackpot.

In a flyer distributed by Betty and her growing army of helpers, Richard said: “Let me watch it grow all you good people out there.”

His thoughts, too, were never far from the medics whose care and expertise he unfailingly appreciated.

“I may be paralysed. Maybe I will no longer walk my beat but I am alive thanks to wonderful nursing,” he said.

Cash raised included the scanner’s operational costs for five years following its installation in March 1988, during which time several thousand Swindon patients benefited from its use. No-one is saying Swindon would not have acquired a scanner but for Richard Webb. However, the town would not have obtained one so soon. It would have happened eventually – two or three years later, maybe.

Think of all the people whose potentially fatal illnesses were diagnosed earlier than they would have been in that period thanks to the scanner.

How many lives were saved? No-one knows. Dozens, scores, possibly hundreds.

That’s hundreds of people around today who would otherwise not have made it but for one man’s courage and determination (with commendable back-up from Betty and team.) At Richard’s funeral on January 4, 1989, the vicar of Covingham the Rev Brian Pearce was spot on.

“No words on my account can describe the effect he had on the community and people’s lives,” he said.

When you are wrapping up your presents on Christmas Eve, greeting family and friends, perhaps enjoying a few drinks down the local, spare a few seconds, if you will, to consider the life of PC Richard Webb – a True Swindon Hero.

  • SIX years after Swindon’s original scanner was installed in 1988 it was replaced with two newer versions.

They were housed in a special unit at Princess Margaret Hospital, the Richard Webb Unit.

Richard’s widow Lesley unveiled the £1.7 million unit in September, 1994 which was paid for with Government cash.

After 40 years in Swindon Betty Kerr, director of Richard’s appeal, returned to her place of birth, the Scottish Isle of Arran in 2003 where she raised money for sick children.

She died from a heart attack, aged 80, two years later.

  • ALONGSIDE the rose garden, concert bowl, bandstand and ornamental pond at the Town Gardens in Old Town is a lasting tribute to Richard Webb – a brass sundial.

It was unveiled in August 1992 after £1,500 was raised locally.

Beautifully designed and executed by Calne artist Marie Brett, pictured with her creation, it reflects various aspects of Richard’s life. A dish represents his Pisces birth sign, a dove his belief in peace.

Images of children highlight how popular the local bobby was with them. At Commonweal alone they raised £900 for the scanner at a sponsored swim and non-school uniform day.

The line of his regular Old Town beat is also shown, as is a Swindon Police badge and the figure, £1 million.

The real memorial, however, are the lives that he helped to save.

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